With the sad loss of The Duke of Edinburgh also comes the loss of one of our finest cricketing royals. Steve Pittard salutes Prince Philip’s marvellous contribution to the princely pastime.
The Corfu Compton first gave notice of his sporting prowess at Cheam prep school. The blue-blooded biffer – ‘highly unsympathetic to stonewalling’ – crashed a quickfire 19 coming in as last man. At Gordonstoun he captained the Ist XI, and had to contend with beastly Scottish pitches that had only just been grazed by sheep. The establishment only taught him how to waft the willow – gentlemen didn’t bowl – but he got bored with lolling around at long leg. As an admirer of the Bodyline brute Harold Larwood, Philip took up pace but gave up it as a bad job – “ much too energetic” – and switched to off-spin.
At Windlesham Moor, the royal couple’s Berkshire bolthole, Philip set up stumps on the tennis lawns. On Sunday mornings he’d prise the servants out of the pantry for practice sessions. His beloved Princess Elizabeth was also roped in, and sometimes had to go leather hunting among the rhododendrons. Gardeners, bred for donkey work, made tolerable trundlers, but the royal household lacked a specialist stumper, so Michael Parker, an old Navy chum, was hired as equerry-cum-wicketkeeper. By now Philip was dabbling with leg breaks. He recalled one comical occasion when he experimented with a googly: “I let the ball go… I had no control over the bloody thing, of course, and it sailed way up into the air, he ducked, and it hit his wicket.”
In 1949 Philip was crowned MCC President and led a victorious English invitation XI against Hampshire, piloting his own helicopter from Balmoral to Bournemouth. Coming on just before lunch, the toff’s teasing line and length claimed a wicket to break a century stand. He possessed ‘the perfect action’ according to no less a judge than Don Bradman. A dozen dazzling runs made for a cracking cameo, putting trenchant Telegraph correspondent EW Swanton into raptures: ‘Strokes of a pedigree not normally seen on English greens’. Philip’s attire – I Zingari cap and Free Foresters blazer – was as crisp as his cover drives. A photograph from the 1950 Wisden shows the dapper Duke bowling in brogues – pure class – while the umpire, acting as a valet, dutifully holds his suit jacket.
In 1953, the Duke of Norfolk threw down the gauntlet. Despite it being the coronation year, there was no question of ‘reign stop play’. The ‘First Gentlemen v Premier Peer’ captured the public imagination and attracted an Arundel audience of 30,000 – Test match proportions. Chasing 204, the gung-ho Greek garnered an elegant 18, albeit in vain. His equerry reached the same tally before remembering his manners – it’s bad form to upstage one’s master.
Philip got tangled up with the Thursday club, a raffish Soho outfit that met for weekly shenanigans. Habitués included James Robertson-Justice, David Niven and Peter Ustinov. Disparate guests included John Betjeman, the Kray twins and Kim Philby – fielding Third Man, perchance? Miles Kington was surprised to find totty in attendance, but Lord Mountbatten assured him, “These girls are great women in their own right… The Duchess of Northumberland, The Percy, The Lady Devonshire.” An astonished Kington interjected, “These are their titles?” “No,” came the reply. “They are the pubs they work at.” Anyway, the reprobates occasionally donned whites. In a boozy beano against Tolleshunt d’Arcy, they collapsed after lunch. Philip, out after scoring the obligatory ‘one off the mark’, complained of gamesmanship, having been plied with champagne.
The aristocratic all-rounder graced a local derby in Kent for Mersham Le Hatch against Aldington. He dismissed three commoners, but one of the blighters later behaved abominably. Instead of tossing up a juicy half-volley – correct etiquette when a nob comes to the crease – the oaf whipped down a demon delivery. The dumbfounded Duke was struck on the pads and given out LBW for a golden duck! He was still fuming over the lese-majeste four years later, while holding forth at a league conference: “That is the sort of umpiring that should be looked into.”
In a 1957 game of thrones, HRH snaffled four wickets and had the mighty Tom Graveney in a pickle. Amid much hilarity, the Gloucestershire legend – subsequently branded the Duke’s rabbit – was caught by a Wing Commander. Another castle caper, at Highclere, saw Philip’s last hoorah. Ted Dexter upset the applecart by collaring him for successive sixes – practically treason – before immediately being undone by a spitting cobra. The Duke was initially dropped on nought – cover point did the decent thing – but summoned a long handled bat to make a cavalier 33.
The crusty consort hung up his cricketing brogues in 1958. He accompanied Her Majesty to the Lord’s Test over the decades and championed the merits of the British Empire’s greatest export, though some continental coves remained baffled. As he put it, “One of the reasons that make it so difficult to explain cricket to foreigners is that they assume it is just another game”. It’s all a matter of aesthetics. When the Duke was asked, “Is there anything about modern cricket you’d like to change?” he replied “I only wish that some of their trousers fitted better.”
RIP HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh 10th June 1921-9th April 2021